The Parallax View

Everyone knows that New York is a cultural center, but sometimes I feel like no one knows why. There are symphonies, musicals, operas, and movies in every city. What makes New York special?

One difference is the art film scene. Searching for movie showtimes here can be a challenge; mainstream movies are mixed in with an endless list of premieres, indie films, art house revivals, film festivals, and more.

Another difference is the density of famous entertainers. A friend of mine went to an anonymous comedy show at 11 PM on a Monday night … and saw Aziz Ansari and Sarah Silverman. That doesn’t happen in Seattle.

Today, I got to see those two phenomena come together, in a showing of The Parallax View at The Film Forum hosted by Larry Wilmore (and meta-hosted by Wayne Federman). As Wayne explained, he was organizing a miniature film festival where he picks comedians, and they in turn pick the films. Wilmore chose this one.

The theater was narrow and the screen small. Federman boasted that the print, borrowed from the University of Chicago film archive, was in IB Technicolor, which is almost immune to fade over time … important for filmstock from the original run in 1974. He was right: the colors were bright. The audio crackled, dust danced on the screen, and cigarette burns were more frequent than I’ve ever seen, and sometimes in odd places. It was annoying for about 30 seconds, and then it just didn’t matter.

There’s no better way to see a movie, I think, than with a packed audience of film buffs. Riding that wave of enthusiasm, it felt like a perfect Hollywood answer to A Clockwork Orange, or maybe a darker, funnier, and ultimately more compelling version of James Bond. It certainly seemed more brutally honest than Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson.

When the lights came on, Wilmore walked to the front to take questions. It was immediately clear that Wilmore’s usual lowbrow comedy is not his whole story: he used the phrase “filmic verisimilitude” within the first 15 seconds.

I asked Wilmore whether he saw a connection to Bulworth, another movie in which Warren Beatty plays someone who is trying to stop a political assassination. He felt there was little in common: Bulworth is really about politics; Parallax is really about our paranoid inner life.


I find large-scale accounting analyses, like the one that estimates the cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom at $2 trillion, more entertaining than I probably should. Sure, these kinds of calculations are flawed. Take them out far enough, and you wind up trying to estimate the effect on total GDP growth into the indefinite future … playing with counterfactuals and integrating out to infinity.

Still, I wonder what the total cost has been of the Republicans’ obsessive investigations into the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. The direct costs of the investigating committee itself have been about $5 million to date, but I think most of the cost actually lies elsewhere. I’d start with the value of all television airtime spent on the topic. Fox News, for example, had spent about 1100 segments on the topic by last year. Excluding coverage of the attack itself, I think we can safely conclude that there have been at least 1000 segments advocating for, or covering iterations of, the investigation.

Suppose each of those segments was 30 seconds long. Then the value of that airtime is straightforward to estimate: it is the cost of placing a 30-second ad on Fox News. The cost of placing such an ad varies widely depending on time of day, but during peak hours it is well in excess of $100,000, suggesting a total airtime value of at least $100M. Given all the coverage in other news media, I think it’s fair to assume an additional $100M in expenditures from other outlets.

The GDP per capita of Libya is $12,000 per person, and there are 635,000 people in Benghazi, leading to a total annual GDP of $7.6B for the city. So at least we’re not in Miami Vice territory yet. Still, I wonder. What about the cost of government paralysis and citizen distraction? How much is a minute of Congress’s time worth?

I suppose it’s hard to resolve. Some might even say it is less than zero.

Austin So Far

I’ve been in Austin, TX since Sunday night.  Observations:

It’s incredibly humid.  My towel never dries.

Entertainment districts are incredibly densely packed.  I walked down a street with literally dozens of bars on both sides, and basically nothing else.

Food is super meaty.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a salad.

The streets are clearly built to handle torrential rains.  Sometimes the sidewalk will literally be a bridge over a drainage channel.

There’s quite a lot of bicycling, which is a little surprising considering that it’s infernally hot for most of the year.  Maybe people mostly ride at night.

A lot of restaurants and bars are freestanding buildings (like in the suburbs), but there are no parking lots.

The food trucks are often bigger, more permanent, and more creative than I’ve ever seen before.  Highlights include a psychedelic schoolbus serving sandwiches, and a giant silver streamlined trailer crowned in a giant red sign proclaiming “CHICKEN”.

EDIT: On the last night in Austin, I came back to find a guest in my house:

Gecko!  In my house!
Gecko! In my house!


Wednesday night. Rain. Doors at 6:30, show at 7. Soundchecking, running songs. Best Day, check. Hallelujah, no tenors, but check. I Choose You, epic fail. Half a song, then catastrophe. Song structure disintegrates.


Guests in the house. Flee. Wet, in a garage driveway, try it again. Last chance. Start … to finish, but muddled. Ugly. Five minutes to showtime. Fine, one more try …

It’s in!


I asked audience members afterward, and they had no idea that that was the song we were having trouble with. I guess that could be a good thing or a bad thing.

Highline Ballroom

On Friday I went to a show at the Highline Ballroom. The headliner was Green River Ordinance, a 5-piece band with four electric guitars that’s from Texas and don’t you forget it. It’s not your average New York City act, and it wasn’t what you’d call a packed house, which was just fine with me. There was room to stand right up in front of the stage and look up the singer’s nose, if that’s what you’re into. There were also tables at which to eat a $25 sandwich, which you’re going to need for a show whose first opener starts at 7.

There was enough of a crowd to have energy in the room, especially since everyone there seemed to know the lyrics by heart. They mostly have a classic country sensibility, love and homesickness, that is at odds with the uniformly loud and fast delivery.

At the end of the night they swapped out their guitars for the umpteenth time, came down to the floor, and played one last song without amplification. It was a fine show, but I might have been happier if they’d done the whole night that way.


By my recollection, I’ve now been to the Metropolitan Opera House three times: once in high school, when a family friend couldn’t use his season tickets for La Boheme, and so lent them to us, once this summer for ballet, and again on Friday, for Tosca.

We got standing room tickets, which I hadn’t really ever heard of. At The Met they’re theoretically $25, except somehow it’s actually $35 by the time you’ve paid. I went straight from work, in my polo and fleece.

I’m not much of a traditional opera fan. The vibrato is often so extreme I feel like I’m guessing the note, not hearing it. Foreign-language melodrama is not my most favorite category of fiction, and I don’t speak Italian, French, German, or Russian. Tosca is an absolutely classic Italian opera: conversations happen entirely in song, but also completely free of song structure: no verse and refrain, and just the subtlest hint of recurring themes, inaudible to the uninitiated.

My distant memory of La Boheme was that I couldn’t make heads or tails of the music, but I could appreciate the enormous number of people onstage, incredibly detailed sets, snow, horses, etc. Tosca‘s locations don’t lend themselves so easily to the Met’s incredible set design. The first two acts are in enclosed spaces, bizarrely distended to fit the giant proscenium. Also, no horses.

For most entertainment, I do my very best to know nothing at all about what I am about to witness. I avoid watching movie trailers, for example, in the interest of experiencing the entire film fresh. Next time I go to the opera, though, I’m going to take the opposite approach: read the libretto, listen to the arias, and read every bit of historical analysis I can find. Opera is an art form ripped out of its context and reproduced for an audience generations and continents removed from the source. Maybe if I know what it was like to be a 19th century Neapolitan, I’ll be more likely to enjoy it.

Bull Hill

50 miles north of New York City is a little town called Cold Spring, right on the very most scenic bit of the Hudson. I went there yesterday for a bit of hiking, to escape the city grid.

We arrived just in time for lunch, along with maybe a few hundred other people on the train. Every restaurant was jammed, with a wait. Ultimately, we ended up at a little cafe that messed up our orders and majorly over-mustarded my sandwich — and I say that as someone who loves mustard. I overheard the waitress explain that she actually lives in Brooklyn, and had just come up for the day to help with the tourist rush.

We had originally hoped to climb Breakneck Ridge, but by the time we had eaten it was too far away, so we settled for Bull Hill. We walked there along the highway, which carried a steady stream of childless yuppie pedestrians in twos and fives, walking back to town (having arrived without a car). In New York City, whatever you’re up to, you’re never the only one who thought this seemed like a good day for it.

The town is delightfully quaint, and the eating is at least not higher than city prices, but I think the real reason for the mass pilgrimage is the view from Bull Hill.